Arizona Center for Nature Conservation: A Conversation with Bert Castro, President/CEO of the Phoeni

Bert Castro has become recognized as a leader in the zoo field for his exemplary leadership at both the Oklahoma City and Phoenix Zoos. While in Oklahoma City from 2001 to 2008, he oversaw the development of Oklahoma Trails, the largest expansion in the zoo’s history up to that time. Since arriving in Phoenix in 2008, Castro has overseen several capital projects and has helped boost the zoo’s reputation. Here is his story.

@ Phoenix Zoo

Bert grew up in Tulsa, Oklahoma and often went to the Tulsa Zoo as a child. He was inspired at a young age by seeing Gunda the elephant (who still lives there) up close at a birthday party and knew then that he wanted to become a zookeeper. “After I received my degree in zoology, I wanted to work in a zoo,” Castro recalled. “I sent resumes everywhere to no avail and then I asked a friend who worked at the Tulsa Zoo if they had anything available. They did have a volunteer position available. My job was to go down into the basement where they had a feeder collection of mice and rats and clean all their cages." Soon, he was offered a job as a keeper in the children’s zoo and ended up spending 8.5 years at the Zoo, largely as a swing keeper. “Many people want to specialize and be very focused in one area, but I wanted to take a broader approach,” Castro elaborated. “Having that diversity and opportunity to work with a broad range of animals was very enjoyable to me. It was helpful and fun getting a feel for all the different areas of the zoo.”

@ Tulsa Zoo

Castro noted the Tulsa Zoo was quite unique at that time. “One of the most interesting exhibits was the North American Living Museum,” he said. “You walked through a set of four buildings, each representing a different ecosystem. You were in a museum-like setting and the animals were both inside and outside in naturalistic habitats. It was a very diverse and large animal collection. It was a great place for me to learn the ropes because I was able to work with a variety of different animals - elephants, rhinos, big cats, bears.”

@ Tulsa Zoo

In 1993, Bert moved on the become Assistant Curator at the Audubon Zoo in New Orleans for two years under Craig Dinsmore, who would later become the longtime director of Utah’s Hogle Zoo. “I worked in the Asian Domain, which had elephants, hoofstock and big cats,” he stated. “It had a relatively small staff but it was a really great place to work. Ron Forman (the zoo’s CEO) is an amazing individual and a pillar in the zoo community. I felt very privileged to have the opportunity to work there. I really enjoyed living in New Orleans.” During Castro’s time at the Audubon Zoo, the Audubon Nature Center was developing ACRES, an offsite reproductive and breeding facility.

@ Audubon Zoo

Next, Bert moved to Zoo Atlanta, which was under the directorship of the legendary Dr. Terry Maple. “Terry Maple is incredible - one of the greats in our field,” he remarked. “I felt very blessed to have the opportunity to work at Zoo Atlanta. I applied for the Curator of Mammals position at a time when they were looking to consolidate and be more efficient, so they offered me the Curator of Mammals and Birds position. Zoo Atlanta was a great zoo and Dr. Maple had done such a wonderful job leading it. The behavioral science that was being done at the zoo was amazing. I learned that by using solid science and understanding the natural history of animals, we could give the animals the best life they could have in a zoo setting. Because of that, Zoo Atlanta has a special place in my heart. It was interesting because there was a corporate feel to Zoo Atlanta. There was a good balance between serving the mission and being able to raise the funds to accomplish the mission. It was a really great time to be there.”

@ Zoo Atlanta

In 1997, Bert Castro became General Curator and Living Collections Manager at the San Antonio Zoo. “I worked directly for Steve McCusker, who was a great business man and had a strong animal background,” he stated. “He had the complete package and ran that zoo very well. San Antonio was the first time I was in charge of an entire collection. It also was where I learned much about the business side of zoos. As general curator, you find yourself overseeing the animal collection, but also have to focus on the people that manage the collection and budget issues. The business issues of the zoo become more prominent in your day-to-day life."

@ San Antonio Zoo

In 2001, Castro became the Executive Director of the Oklahoma City Zoo. Over the previous fifteen years, the zoo had excelled under the leadership of Steve Wylie and was already on the path to succeeding. “It was a great zoo and had a fascinating revenue generating structure,” Castro stated. “They receive a perpetual 1/8-penny sales tax that solely goes to the zoo. At that time, it generated around $10 million a year. We operated the zoo as an enterprise center and made revenues from the front gate and concessions. Every year we had a surplus in revenues and were able to build new capital projects. We were really able to take the zoo to the next level. That’s pretty amazing.”

Gillian Lang @ Oklahoma City Zoo

However, Castro found that to make the zoo even better he had to unite the staff. There were some staffing issues that he worked to resolve and he tried really hard to bring the team together. “There are a lot of smart, passionate people who work in zoos and you need to work hard to build trust with them,” Castro elaborated. “When the new guy comes in they can be like ‘Who is this guy? What’s he going to do?' I felt that people didn’t know me well and didn’t trust me as they should.” While it took time, Castro was able to win over his staff. “One of the things I really enjoyed doing is taking the opportunity once a month to work in different areas whether with a zookeeper, a custodian or operations person," he added. "I worked side by side for half a day with the folks.”

@ Oklahoma City Zoo

“I’m a big believer in understanding the workplace and seeing the world from my staff’s different perspectives.” Castro reflected. “I continue that practice (in Phoenix) where I’ll pull away from my desk and work out in the zoo. This approach builds camaraderie and a collegial atmosphere. People get to know me as a person and I get to know folks. It’s pretty simple; treat people with dignity and respect and great things happen.”

Gillian Lang @ Oklahoma City Zoo

Castro’s tenure at the Oklahoma City Zoo began with a controversy: ending the zoo’s program with bottlenose dolphins. It was especially intense, since some people wanted dolphins out of all zoos, while others were upset they were leaving. “It came down to the welfare of the animals," he commented. "We knew some of the dolphins were affected by an equine virus that was very detrimental to them, but we were not able figure out how they were getting it. We made the decision to move away from dolphins, as it was in the best interest of those animals.” Most people understood that the move was necessary for the welfare of the individual animals.

@ Oklahoma City Zoo

During his time as director, Bert led the design and construction of Oklahoma Trails, an 8-acre replication of all the different ecosystems of Oklahoma and home for over 800 species. “Oklahoma Trails was a big hit and turned out really great,” he elaborated. “Some people think Oklahoma’s landscape is kind of a boring, but it has eleven different ecosystems. We tried to showcase the flora and fauna in all of them. It was the first time the zoo had created a major zoogeographic regional exhibit and people really loved it. “Some species found in Oklahoma Trails include grizzly and black bears, gray wolves, bison, elk, river otters, American alligators, coyotes, mountain lions, roadrunners and a variety of fish.

@ Oklahoma City Zoo

The design of Oklahoma Trails was done in collaboration with WDM Architects in Wichita, Kansas. “One of the things we did before we even started designing the exhibit was get in a car and drive to every end of Oklahoma,” Castro stated. “We started in the mountains of the southeast corner of the state and drove through the entire state, taking photographs of the topography and looking at the natural history of the animals found in Oklahoma.” As a result, the exhibit recreates the environments and transports visitors into them.

@ Oklahoma City Zoo

Gillian Lang @ Oklahoma City Zoo

Another key aspect in the development of Oklahoma Trails was the inclusion of a variety of staff members in the design process. “When I arrived in Phoenix, the one thing we considered when we designed exhibits was the need to get many staff members involved in the design,” Castro explained. “We created a team of people from different facets of the zoo to help design the exhibit along with the architect - people from our education department, our animal people, maintenance people and guest services. We called these folks our experience teams, which was so different from the way it was done at other zoos. When we create an exhibit, hopefully we are not leaving anyone out. We did that with Oklahoma Trails in a less formal sense. It’s very important to make sure you get a lot of different disciplines to look at the exhibit in so many different ways so it can be great for the animals, their welfare, visitors and staff.”

Lena Kofoed @ Oklahoma City Zoo

These factors all made Oklahoma Trails a success. “It’s kind of a microcosm of the wildlife of Oklahoma,” Castro added. “We spent a lot of time on it. We built an old farm scene where the barn is the nocturnal building, an aviary full of birds, a snapping turtle exhibit, an underwater beaver exhibit and much more.” Of course the stars of Oklahoma Trails were the grizzly bears. “We certainly made sure both the bear habitats were very spacious,” Castro said. “The grizzly bears use their water-filled moat like a big giant river. They utilize it quite a bit. It’s very naturalistic, open and spacious.” The entire area was very well received.

@ WDM Architects

@ WDM Architects

In 2008, Castro surprised his board when he announced he was leaving the Oklahoma City Zoo to become director of the Phoenix Zoo. “There were a couple of reasons I wanted to come here,” he reflected. “I loved Oklahoma City. We had a great revenue structure and were doing wonderful things. However, my wife and I love the American Southwest and wanted to live there. My board at Oklahoma City thought I was a little crazy for leaving the zoo to go to a place where I would have to raise money. I wanted and needed the challenge. Phoenix was a 50-year old zoo and a bit long in the tooth. They were looking for someone to come in and do good things. Once offered the job, I felt I could come here, be productive, helpful and build a great staff. I decided to come to Phoenix and give it a shot. I’ve loved every minute of it.”

@ Phoenix Zoo

The Phoenix Zoo is unique, as it is located in an arid southwestern desert. It also is one of the few zoos in America to receive no tax funding from local government. When Bert came to the zoo, it was his responsibility to bring a number of the zoo’s facilities and infrastructure up to date. “When I came in there was already a master plan in place,” he remarked. “The first phase was a $20 million capital campaign and we were able to raise that amount and a little more. Although we built some great exhibits, much of what was needed was operational - an administrative building, an education building and a new entrance."

@ Phoenix Zoo

@ Phoenix Zoo

“At the same time we had to raise money for a lot of infrastructure in need of renovation,” Bert continued. “And while there were many good things about the zoo, from a facility standpoint there was a lot of deferred maintenance that needed to be addressed. The first project we had to do was build three miles of waterline because the fire department had placed a moratorium on any new development in the zoo until the waterlines were upgraded to meet code. We had to dig up much of the zoo. I really had to focus on getting everything up to speed.”

@ Phoenix Zoo

Raising money for the improvements the Phoenix Zoo needed turned out to be a huge challenge. “Phoenix doesn’t have a long history of philanthropic support,” Castro explained. "There are not many corporations based here, so most of our philanthropic dollars come from private individuals and a few foundations. Many people are snow birds, have second homes and live in Phoenix half the year, so when it comes to philanthropic giving, they give back to their home cities. We have to get very creative when building new exhibits and don’t have those big capital budgets that many of the bigger zoos have. We have to be deliberate and can’t get real fancy with our exhibits.”

@ Phoenix Zoo

“In October of 2008 we went public with our first capital campaign and two days later the market crashed,” Castro recollected. “We found ourselves in the midst of the great recession and wondering whether we should stop the campaign. We opted to keep moving forward. We felt we had a compelling story and great individuals who would support the zoo, as well as a wonderful community that would rally behind the zoo. We were able to raise $23.5 million during a very difficult time. One of the silver linings of the recession for us was that companies were willing to bid competitively for work because construction at that time in Phoenix had come to a halt. Construction companies were competing for our projects and it was great to provide jobs for those crews. When we built the new orangutan exhibit, it came in a million dollars under the engineering cost estimates. We didn’t even take the lowest bid and were still able to save a million dollars on the cost of construction.”

@ Phoenix Zoo

In addition to the recession, Castro had to work with a financial model that was exclusively private dollars. “Mr. Maytag (who started the zoo) and other Phoenix civic leaders of that time didn’t want to burden taxpayers with supporting the zoo and that mindset has been how the zoo has operated since its inception,” he explained. “The only time in the history of the zoo that we took public dollars from the city was with regards to a utility project. This was done through a Parks sales tax initiative. It would have been very difficult to raise money for infrastructure from the private sector.”

@ Phoenix Zoo

The first animal habitat of the capital campaign was Land of the Dragons, a state-of-the-art exhibit for Komodo dragons. Next up was Orang-Hutan: People of the Forest, the most ambitious and expensive habitat ever created at the zoo. It gave the zoo’s red apes a modern, dynamic habitat well crafted for their welfare and behavior. “The old orangutan exhibit had been an issue for our continued accreditation,” Castro elaborated. “It was really outdated and basically a concrete bunker. The inside of the exhibit was cramped and we needed to do something different. We knew that was a big issue and we were really going to need to step up our game to do right by the orangs. We ended up designing and building a facility 17 times larger than the old one, with grassy outdoor habitats with plenty of enrichment opportunities.”

@ WDM Architects

@ WDM Architects

Opened in 2011, Orang-Hutan features several different spaces for the orangutans to move between. “You walk into the indoor viewing area and see the arboreal yard and the terrestrial yard - both are large naturalistic habitats,” Castro said. “We also have an indoor space for the orangutans so they can get out of inclement weather. In the old space, the orangutans could only be out during the morning for much of the summer as it was too hot for them. Now the indoor viewing area allows them to be visible to the public while also staying comfortable. The orangs have free reign to go inside or outside. Below there’s an underground keeper service area and bedroom area for the orangutans. There’s a medical room if we need it, so they don’t have to be taken to the vet hospital for routine exams.”

@ Phoenix Zoo

A major emphasis in the Phoenix Zoo’s orangutan program is on natural behaviors. “The keepers are always working with the orangutans doing a ton of behavioral enrichment,” Castro added. “They’re focused on keeping the orangutans mentally stimulated. We have a training wall out in front of the exhibit where we can bring the orangutans out and do training demonstrations in front of the public. I’m a big proponent of giving the public that intimate interactive experience. If people can get close to animals safely, they will have a greater appreciation for them. The whole physical layout of the new orangutan exhibit lends itself to giving those animals a much better and more stimulating life than ever before.”

@ Phoenix Zoo

The zoo is also heavily involved in orangutan conservation. Not only do they have educational graphics on the apes, but also trail guides and volunteers who talk about the plight of orangutans in the wild, as well as their natural history. “That person-to-person communication is something I really like and we really value that here,” Castro stated.

@ Phoenix Zoo

@ Phoenix Zoo

In 2015, the Phoenix Zoo opened Isle of the Tiger, the last animal exhibit of the World Class Zoo for a World Class City capital campaign. This moved the zoo’s Sumatran tigers from the Africa loop to a much more elaborate habitat in the Asian section. “The tigers were in an older facility and we wanted to give them more space and a better home,” Bert noted. “The old facility made it difficult to successfully breed them. Our male is the number one genetic male in the SSP. Our new space can house up to six tigers, which will enable us to start to engage with the SSP and breed tigers here in the near future.”

@ WDM Architects

@ Phoenix Zoo

“The dens are heated and outside the floors are cooled in the summer,” Castro continued. “We installed a lot of ventilation in the building. The two yards are very spacious and you can get really close to the tigers. Only glass separates you. I think it’s a great exhibit for the amount of money spent.” The new space has significantly improved the experience for both the tigers and the visitors.

@ Phoenix Zoo

@ Phoenix Zoo

To Castro, nothing is more important than hiring the right people. “First and foremost you have to build a great staff,” he remarked. "You have to hire the right people and have the right people sitting in the right seat on the bus. That’s really important.”

@ Phoenix Zoo

@ Phoenix Zoo

Another key component of the Phoenix Zoo’s success has been the education department. “We’ve been able to build our education programs at the zoo,” Castro stated. “All of our K-12 programs are aligned with Arizona State Standards. We want kids to have a great time at the zoo, but want the programs we teach to be applicable to the classroom. One of the programs I really like is Project Zoo Lab, a distance learning program that was a 3rd grade afterschool program in a large local district. Students can be in the classroom and getting real live updates on what’s happening at the zoo. We teach a variety of science topics including everything from veterinary medicine to the natural history of zebras. That program has been so well received that it has been incorporated into the district’s 3rd grade science curriculum and is no longer just an after-school program. It’s going to be a great way to educate kids about what’s going on at the zoo.”

@ Phoenix Zoo

The Phoenix Zoo has found engaging visitors through social media to be an effective way to bring people to the zoo. “When it comes to marketing, it comes back to having the right people,” Castro said. “We do print, billboard and TV commercials, but we’ve brought in people to focus on social media. Our social media content has been very effective. It’s relatively cost effective and saves us a lot of money, which is great since we don’t have a big marketing budget.”

@ Phoenix Zoo

Ever since its early days, the Phoenix Zoo has been involved with conservation. As a very young zoo in the late 1960s, it was handed the task of helping save the Arabian oryx from extinction. “Saving the Arabian oryx was the first conservation initiative of its kind in the U.S.,” Castro said. “The Arabian oryx was being poached out of its environment so they brought the world herd to Phoenix, since the weather was very similar to where they came from. The zoo was a fledgling zoo, only a year old, but was already doing this important program. There were about 18-20 Arabian oryxes in the world at the time, but now there are almost 1000 in the wild. Almost all the Arabian oryxes in the world can be traced back to the Phoenix Zoo. It’s an amazing story.”

@ Phoenix Zoo

Today, the Phoenix Zoo focuses on helping save Arizona species, such as the black-footed ferret and the Chiracahua leopard frog. “The black footed ferret was considered extinct twice and it wouldn’t still be here if it weren’t for zoos,” Castro noted. “We’ve produced over 400 ferrets here and released most of them back into the wild. We also have a headstart program for the Chiracahua leopard frog. Frogs and tadpoles have an 8% chance of making it to adulthood in the wild on their own, but with our headstart program they have a 90% chance of survival. We also work with the Mount Graham red squirrel. There were only 250 of them left and we were tasked with learning more about them to develop a breeding program. We have now brought in six squirrels and have spent three years learning about their diet and reproductive biology. We’ve found they only pair up once a year. Those kinds of observations and discoveries are things that zoos can do well, since it is very difficult for people to learn about the subtleties of their biology in the wild. We’re able to learn more about the psychology and their behavior in a zoo setting.”

@ Phoenix Zoo

@ Phoenix Zoo

The Phoenix Zoo has undergone a branding change to “put conservation first and foremost.” “We’re now the Arizona Center for Nature Conservation, doing business at the Phoenix Zoo,” Castro elaborated. “The conservation of species has been pushed to the forefront and, in my opinion, that needs to happen at zoos and aquariums all over the country. Zoos have done a fabulous job with conservation, but we need to be more vocal about it and bring that message to people.”

@ Phoenix Zoo

The zoo is currently in the middle of another capital campaign that will include an expanded Asian elephant habitat, a 500-seat amphitheater for wildlife demonstrations and an African section featuring a West African village, new habitats for lions and hyenas, a predator-prey area with warthogs and leopards and lemurs and fossas, a nocturnal area and sand cats. “We’ve raised half the money and completed the first project - a third conservation building,” Castro remarked. “Most of what we’re going to be doing in this campaign is all animal related. We’re also looking at more projects ten to fifteen years down the road.”

@ Phoenix Zoo

@ Phoenix Zoo

It is very clear that Bert Castro has relished every minute in the zoo industry. “I’d say the one thing I do very well is recognize great talent and surround myself with smart, dedicated people,” he reflected. “I love every part of this business. There is strong evidence that we are in the midst of a sixth mass extinction. There’s never been a time where AZA zoos and aquariums were more relevant than now. We need to work together to get our message out about all the good work we do for wildlife and wild places. There’s a strong need for us to work together with one voice. When we do that, we’ll continue to be very successful. People need to understand the serious side of zoos and aquariums – the conservation of wildlife and wild places. That’s what we’re really about.”

@ Phoenix Zoo

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